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An Aquascaping Challenge You'll Fall in Love With: The Biotope Tank

Posted by Augusta Hosmer on

What is a biotope tank?

A biotope aquarium is basically an underwater snapshot. The goal is to replicate a specific environment via animals, plants, decor, etc. There are hundreds of ideas: Burmese rivers, Florida swamps, floodplains, African lakes…if there's an aquatic region you like, chances are you can replicate it in your tank (The cover photo is an Indian biotope).

African Biotope Tank
An African Biotope Tank

Pros and cons for biotope tanks?

The most obvious pro is that natural tanks are gorgeous, but they also provide an environment in which your fish can express natural behaviors (a huge part of keeping fish happy and healthy). They can call attention to high-risk environments in the wild, introduce you to new regions and species to take your aquarium knowledge to the next level, or give you your own personal slice of an area you love. Honestly? Not a lot of downsides. 

The cons are potentially difficult setups and maintenance (i.e how much you'd like to torture yourself with getting the biotope exact). Some regions have plants and fish that thrive in very specific parameters that can be hard to replicate on a small scale - bigger is alway easier with aquariums. You may fall in love with the look of a particular region, only to discover that the fish from that region are a royal pain to keep alive or that the plants need an insane amount of light you can't provide. 

On the flipside, you could be an aquarium guru but not be able to find stuff for your tank. Some biotopes are more obscure than others, and the aquarium market reflects that. Unless you've picked a tropical environment with flashy fish, you're going to have a harder time finding your tank inhabitants (and may end up spending more cash because of it). Those biotopes are totally worth the effort, but you may need to be more patient and flexible. 

How do I choose my biotope?

There are several factors to consider when choosing a biotope tank:

  • How are you defining “biotope?”
  • What do you like? (Duh)
  • What can you do? (Aquarium experience, tank size/available space, time for maintenance, etc.) 
  • Can you actually get the fish/plants/supplies you need without needing to Liam Neeson "very particular set of skills" your way across the aquatic world?
Amazon Biotope Tank
An Amazon Biotope Tank

The official definition of "biotope" is very broad and is often (maybe incorrectly) used synonymously with the word "habitat." This can influence your choice. Every hobbyist is going to have a slightly different definition of a biotope aquarium, so don't let that drive you too crazy if you're just starting out. Maybe you define it as fish/plants from the same continent or country. Maybe you define it more broadly as just a "river" tank. There is a ton of diversity even in similar regions, so you have many options to consider. In aquascaping contests, it's often very specific, but you don't have to get that narrow if you don't want to. 

One good strategy is to narrow down from broad descriptions until you arrive at the level you want. Do you want a freshwater, saltwater, or brackish tank? What continent/country/region are you interested in? From there, do you want a lake, river, stream, swamp, etc.? Do you want to get really specific and replicate a local stream down to the grains of sand? The possibilities are endless. 

You can also approach your decision from a species perspective. If you want to keep a certain species and/or convert an existing tank, research your fish's natural distribution and get more specific from there. If you’ve settled on zebra danios, for example, they’re native to south Asia, so you’d choose a tank setup that mimics a body of water in that region. 

A big factor that may make your decision for you is what you're capable of - both in skill and in availability of resources - so be sure to thoroughly research the parameters of your chosen biotope. Some biotope aquariums are going to be way more difficult than others, and as discussed above, could be harder to stock. 

How do I set up a biotope aquarium?

The exact answer to this question varies a lot depending on your choice/region. A post detailing how to set up all the biotopes on earth would take me decades to write and would probably break Dustin's website. In general, though, the basic considerations for setting up biotope aquariums are the same. Biggest piece of advice? Research, then research some more. 

  • Water parameters (salinity, pH, temperature, blackwater/tannins?)
  • This is the most difficult part of setting up a biotope tank for many hobbyists. Getting the water chemistry as close to the wild environment's as possible can be a tedious process, especially as you narrow your region. It also opens the door to tanks that are less mainstream, like brackish and blackwater tanks. Finding a heating (or cooling) system that mimics the conditions you need can be challenging, especially in a biotope that has widely fluctuating temps. Regardless of your chosen biotope though, make sure your tank is cycled properly before adding fish. 

  • Substrate
  • Here's your chance to branch out from gravel. Look at pictures from the place you want to replicate (or go there if you can). Is the bottom sandy and open? Is it dirt and littered with leaves and driftwood?  Is it rocky? Is it heavily planted? Are there a lot of invertebrates? The answers can change the kinds of plants you can keep successfully without additional work and can also throw off your water chemistry, so weigh your options carefully. 

  • Light
  • Light is the most variable factor on this list and isn't as cut and dry as "bright light vs low light." Maybe your region has crazy light but has heavy, floating vegetation that keeps the underwater inhabitants cool. Maybe you have low light with very sparse plants and more space you have to fill. Maybe the light is blazing but your region is very shady. The key to a healthy planted tank is light/resource availability, so you may have to experiment to balance the light your region has with the lights you have and need.

  • Plant life/Livestock
  • The most exciting parts of a biotope tank are the plants and animals. Finally decided on a continent for your biotope? Check out some of the plants we have to make it happen. Keep in mind if you want more specific regions or species for your tank, you’ll need to do more research and be more selective (this list is based on large regions where these plants are native, not introduced/naturalized - you'll notice some overlap with more widespread species. You can totally choose plants via a different system, though!).  But just to get you started: 

    Africa: Anubias; Aponogeton; Bacopa; Bolbitus; Ceratophyllum; Crinum; duckweed; Mayaca; Myriophyllum; Vallisneria; water lettuce

    African Water Fern (Bolbitus)
    African Water Fern (Bolbitus)

    Asia: Aponogeton; Bacopa; Ceratophyllum; Cryptocoryne; duckweed; Hygrophila; Java moss; Java fern; Myriophyllum; Pogostemon; Rotala; Vallisneria; water lettuce

    Australia: Aponogeton; Bacopa; Ceratophyllum; Myriophyllum; water lettuce

    Europe: Bacopa; Ceratophyllum; duckweed; Myriophyllum; Vallisneria

    North America: Anacharis (elodea); Bacopa; banana plants; Cabomba; Ceratophyllum; duckweed; Mayaca; Myriophyllum; PotamogetonVallisneria; water lettuce

    Central/South America: Alternanthera; Anacharis (elodea); Bacopa; Cabomba; Ceratophyllum; Echinodorous; Frogbit; Ludwigia; Mayaca; Myriophyllum; Staurogyne; water lettuce

    And for the animals (By no means an exhaustive list, and some of these are harder to find than others): 

    Africa: cichlids; clawed/Dwarf frogs; Congo tetras; butterfly fish; kilifish

    Asia: bettas; gouramis; danios; Amano shrimp; rasboras; kilifish; koi; Neocaridina davidi shrimp; goldfish

    Australia: rainbowfish (Melanotaeniidae); mudskipper; gudgeon

    Europe: kilifish (Aphanius); great pond snail (Lymnaea stagnalis); faucet snail; Radix snails; Eurasian minnow; European perch if you have some space; Alpine newts

    North America: kilifish; mosquitofish; great pond snail (Lymnaea stagnalis); mollies; Eastern newts

    Central/South America: Platies; axolotls; kilifish; mosquitofish; neon tetras; mollies; guppies; corydoras; apistos

    As always, check your agriculture laws to make sure these species are legal in your area, especially when dealing with more obscure species.

    As a final piece of advice for this category, understand "native to the same region" and "good tank mates" are not necessarily the same thing. Some fish are from the same area, but have a predator/prey relationship or different habitat requirements. Check compatibility thoroughly before you stock. I'm from the same region as 15-foot alligators. That doesn't mean I'd be happy to find one chilling on my futon.

  • Decor/design
  • Here's where you can really get creative and artistic. Biotope enthusiasts have created tree roots from flooded forests; the murky, shallow banks of the Everglades; volcanic crater lakes; city rivers…have fun with it.

  • Filter/Water flow
  • This one can get tricky if you choose a biotope with very fast or stagnant water. Finding a filter with the appropriate flow rate, whether your biotope is standing water or a river rapid, is incredibly important. It can also impact how your plants/decor hold up, so test the filter out first unless you want a very expensive, cyclone-stirred plant soup. 

    Overall, though a biotope aquarium can be a challenging project, the work pays off with a tank like no other. Up for the challenge? 

    Dustin checked out a few amazing biotope tanks here!

    He also got a chance to talk with an aquarium legend, Heiko Bleher, a master of biotopes and the discoverer of several fish species. Check it out!

    If there's a specific biotope you want us to do a more specific post on, let us know! Or if there's anything else your fishtank-loving heart is dying to learn about, send us your topics, and tank on!


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